SWFAC a hand held out in the dark for child victims

The Southwest Family Advocacy Center is working to combat child abuse.

Child victims of abuse and neglect are often silenced, shamed and left in the dark. Because one in 10 children is sexually abused before their 18th birthday, to many, child abuse is a problem that cannot be ignored.

The Southwest Family Advocacy Center (SWFAC), a child and family focused multidisciplinary facility in Goodyear, is working to reverse that.

While child abuse is difficult to discuss for many, Christopher L. Panneton, SWFAC prevention coordinator, said having age-appropriate, open conversations about safety and sex abuse makes children less vulnerable.

“Generally, when it comes to cases like child sexual abuse, not a lot of people want to talk about it. It’s one of those things that, ‘What happens in the family, stays in the family,’ and ‘Let’s not talk about it because that’s too hard,’” Panneton said.

“I get asked, ‘Wow! How do you do that job?’ It’s about protecting kids.”

Community education

and prevention

Panneton works directly with communities in the West Valley to raise awareness and prevent child sexual and physical abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault by facilitating workshops at the center.

From recognizing and reporting suspected child abuse, to boundaries, healthy touch and respectful ways to interact with children, Panneton covers a gamut of prevention programs that educate and empower families at no cost. To learn about upcoming classes, visit swfac.org/classes.

“The media is full of those types of cases — the teacher does something inappropriate; the church that does something. We hear those things, and, sometimes, we turn our head,” Panneton said. “But do we ever sit down and have healthy conversations? What are healthy boundaries? Instead of cringing from it, going, ‘OK, how do we address this?’”

SWFAC therapist Joy Todd said the kind of prevention information provided in Panneton’s workshops make a difference.

“By being aware and having knowledge, we can take steps to protect our kids,” she said. “And also, know how to help our kids heal and grow when they do experience a traumatic experience.”

Multidisciplinary collaboration

Panneton and Todd are just two of the 40 staff members at SWFAC. The center houses a multidisciplinary team made up of law enforcement professionals from the Avondale, Buckeye and Goodyear police departments and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO); advocates; prosecutors; therapists; medical personnel; and the Southwest Region Department of Child Safety (DPS).

SWFAC forensic interviewer Ann Baker works directly with child, teen and adult victims. She said the center has everything they and their families need.

“It’s all in one building, and it’s all accessible within minutes of each other. That is critical,” Baker said. “We all work together; we’re all on the same page; we all know what’s needed.”

Panneton described Baker’s role as the hub of the center, as she conducts interviews with the victim of the crime and shares her findings with everyone involved in the investigative process.

“When people start asking questions, the child gets re-traumatized because, ‘I told it to mom, then I told it to the teacher, and then I told it to the police officer.’” Panneton said. “That’s why it starts here, with Ann, because she can get that information and then from that piece — it’s audio and video recorded — those people that are involved in the case; that information gets shared as needed.”

Kim Escobedo, SWFAC victim advocate, is on the support side of the investigative process. Through Baker’s findings, she determines the kind of resources and help families need.

“Throughout the course of the investigation or prosecution — whatever that looks like — I’m that support for the family; that one person that they can go to if things come up — making sure that their needs are met throughout the entire time from beginning to end,” Escobedo said.

Friends of SWFAC

Friends of the Southwest Family Advocacy Center is a nonprofit organization that supports the needs of the center that are not funded by the four law enforcement departments — Avondale, Buckeye, Goodyear and MCSO.

Through local partnerships and donations, the nonprofit covers therapy, clothing, comfort items, toys and food, said Debra Olson, SWFAC director.

“Because all of our therapy sessions are at no cost to the victim and their family, we have several different ways that we pay for that. Some of it is through grant funding — that goes through our partners,” Olson said.

Such personal needs, including psychological support and counseling, are essential to a victim’s healing process, Olson said.

“It’s all about making them feel comfortable and safe. We want every victim and their family members to feel respected. And that’s why when we ask for clothing donations or toy donations, we ask for new items,” Olson added.

While the center is thankful for the support provided by the cities and the nonprofit, there is still a void to be filled. Clothes, Barbie dolls, sports balls and painting kits are only some of the items the center needs funding for. Monetary donations are accepted via checks made payable to Friends of the Southwest Family Advocacy Center and can be mailed or dropped off at 2333 N. Pebble Creek Parkway, Suite A-200, Goodyear.

Shedding light

on the darkness

Since SWFAC opened its doors in 2008, it has served 7,235 children and adults — and conducted 440 forensic interviews in 2018 alone. Looking at numbers, Todd said child abuse is too big of a problem for it to fall through the cracks.

“From a statistical standpoint — whether it’s somebody we directly know or somebody in our circle or community — chances are at some point in time these services will be needed; just because one in four girls and women will experience sexual abuse by their 18th birthday,” Todd said.

“When we let things be secret and dark in a corner — and we don’t shed a light on things — that’s when things continue to grow and cause difficulties. This is a place that can open and shed light and help families move forward.”